Born as Rodney Phillip Needham Green, Needham changed his name in 1947, the same year he married Claudia (Ruth) Brysz, they had two children, one of whom, Tristan, became a professor of mathematics Tristan Needham.
His fieldwork was with the Penan of Borneo (1951-2) and the Siwang of Malaysia (1953-5). He was University Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Oxford University, 1956–76; Professor of Social Anthropology, Oxford, 1976–90; Official Fellow, Merton College, Oxford, 1971–75; and Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, 1976-90.
Together with Sir Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas, Needham brought structuralism across the Channel and anglicised it in the process. A prolific scholar, he was also a particularly inspiring teacher and an indefatigable rediscoverer of neglected figures in the history of his discipline, such as Arnold Van Gennep and Robert Hertz.
Among other things, he made a significant contribution to the study of family resemblance, introducing the terms "monothetic" and "polythetic" into anthropology.
- 1962 Structure and sentiment
- 1971 Rethinking kinship and marriage
- 1972 Belief, language and experience
- 1973 Right and left. Essays on dual symbolic classification
- 1974 Remarks and inventions – Skeptical essays about kinship
- 1975 Polythetic classification: Convergence and consequences
- 1978 Primordial characters
- 1978 Essential perplexities
- 1979 Symbolic classification
- 1980 Reconnaissances, U. of Toronto Press, ISBN 0-8020-2365-7
- 1981 Circumstantial deliveries, Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-585-28111-4
- 1983 Against the tranquility of axioms
- 1983 Sumba and the slave trade
- 1985 Exemplars, Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-05200-5
- 1987 Counterpoints
- 1987 Mamboru, history and structure in a domain of Northwestern Sumba